My Letter To Clifford Nass

Hello Professor Nass. My name is David Weekly. I am the student who approached
you after class just now to ask you what would happen if I disagreed with you. I
am a junior in Computer Science here.

I realize you have hardly had time yet to raise objectionable points, but what I
am disagreeing with is the tack that I see you (potentially) taking in the
class. I think it is a bad idea for technical and sociological reasons to try
and make computers interface to people in a human-like way. That’s not to say
that I do not think that computer interfaces should not be ultimately intuitive;
quite the contrary. But I raise that intuition is cultivated in the environment
and with habit. The mouse, for instance, was an entirely unintuitive device;
people stepped on it, raised it into the air and (in one of the Star Trek
movies, if you remember) spoke into it before it was clear what it did. And yet
the vast majority of Americans today can use a mouse with alacrity, almost as an
extension of themselves. The point here is that the mouse had little direct
analogy to anything commonly human and was quite unintuitive from the
start…but the mouse was designed in such a way as that people could adapt to
it quickly.

So my argument is that we need to make interfaces that one can adapt to rapidly
but are not neccessarily intuitive or human-like from the start. Having made
this point, I will go further to say that I do not believe that making computers
human-like is wise. As Luddite as it may sound coming from a CS major, dumping
humans to be replaced by automatons in human-human interaction scenarios (e.g.,
a restaurant, ticketing, phone operators) will rarely IMHO make the world a
better place. It will be a more efficient place, but one replacement leads to
another and as sure as day we will make this world a miserable and lonely
location if we only think about efficiency. Please note that I’m not talking
about factory work here, or non-human-human scenarios.

If we interface to the computer as we do to reality, our perception of reality
is altered. The consequences of this must be examined before we rashly rush in
with the latest AI, 3D, and multiplayer technology to produce immediately
compelling and intuitive interfaces. If we can talk to a computer like we talk
to our friends than we may start talking to our friends like we do the
computers. We become frustrated with the limits of reality and stop being able
to truly appreciate it. (How many times have you been annoyed at not being able
to ‘grep’ a book in your hands?)

I am aware that many of these statements are broad and overarching, perhaps
generalizing a little too much and overlooking important exceptions. At the same
time, I believe that there is a fundamental truth to them that needs to be
considered. I see the computers of the future optimally having interfaces that
we today might find complex and alien, but which adapt well to how humans act
and think and also have an awareness of the skill, preferences, and emotion of
the user. I do not see ‘robotic pals’ even ‘virtual pals’ (s/pals/agents/ or
whatever your preferred word is) as being a desirable future. As cute as the
Office Agents are, I despise them for trying to be lifelike. Consistency should
be king in interfaces and having a help system inconsistent with the rest of the
operating system to provide a feature that the vast majority of users dislike
seems to have been a poor decision on the part of Microsoft.

And what’s with having that little moving pen at the bottom of a Word document
while you type? Were they too dumb to realize how distracting that is without
providing any useful functionality at ALL?

Well that’s my $0.02. Maybe I’m just another naive student, but I feel my ideas
deserve at the least a solid rebuke before I’ll back down on them.

David E. Weekly

Author: dweekly

I like to start things. :)